Sofia Coppola's filmography has been defined by her excellent touch when it comes to examining the female experience - particularly female repression, and once again it is with this subject that her latest offering comes to life. Becoming the second director to adapt Thomas Cullinan's American Civil War-set story and Southern Gothic novel A Painted Devil often results in comparisons to the previous adaptation, and Coppola knew this would be the case here and so subverts that film's style entirely. The 1971 film by Don Siegel was defined by its strong masculine presence from Clint Eastwood as a Northern Soldier who finds himself injured in rural Mississippi and is found by a young girl, a student of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, who takes him back to her school and he is tended to by the isolated women there - and becomes a victim to their jealousies and repressed desire through his presence alone. In Coppola's case, the premise of the film is much the same, albeit from a much more feminine perspective that is less keen to villainise its female characters.
In Coppola's version, Colin Farrell portrays the same hyper-masculine charmer John McBurney - with added exoticism for the Southern belles due to his Irish accent and roots - who is wounded in the Civil War and becomes a patient of Martha Farnsworth's school. Farrell is positively charming in the role, but also threatening and devilishly manipulative at once, he himself a villain who seduces women to use them for his own sexual or other practical ends. Nicole Kidman - also a Coppola newbie with Farrell - portrays the stern but repressed headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, who while less villainous than her previous portrayal, is a pragmatic and enigmatic individual. Kidman brings campy fun to the role, which could have been just a caricature but instead carries greater depth; a woman haunted by duty, loneliness, and longing beneath her Southern veneer.
Coppola alums also deliver standout performances. The director's best friend Kirsten Dunst in particular adds another stellar performance to her body of work as unhappy teacher Edwina Morrow, who while highly intelligent is not immune to the charms of Farrell's roguish soldier. Dunst's role is by far the meatiest, her loyalties and past the most complex, and her arc the most devastating. Elle Fanning, now an adult after her excellent child performance in Somewhere, continues to be the poster-child for teenage sexuality in cinema, here as the voracious and seductive pupil Alicia, keen to ensnare McBurney despite the efforts of her teachers. The other pupils are all charmingly played by the younger actresses in particular Oona Laurence as Amy, the girl who first finds the injured McBurney.
The film is an excellent blend of tones and styles. While a period drama, The Beguiled is suspenseful, erotic, and perhaps, most surprisingly, highly humorous; the manner in which the women compete for McBurney's affections and give in to petty digs and secret-keeping is played for laughs as a dark comedy of manners. However, as proceedings get increasingly steamy, the final act of the film becomes a violent struggle for survival on all sides building to a suitably baroque climax. The style is measured throughout and never overly garish. The usually hyper-present soundtracks of Coppola's previous work is mostly muted here as we hear the distant shots of war, hammering home the isolation of the school, the women and the situation the characters find themselves in.
Coppola has said she was keen to examine the female struggle during a time of war and the balance of gender power when a man interrupts such a delicate environment after such a long time. While the film certainly covers this disruption, it explicitly sides with the women as they become the much marketed 'Vengeful Bitches'; instead of the castrating harpies of Siegel's film. However, there has been some criticism for Coppola's decision to omit the characters of colour from the novel and previous film, such as the school's slave Hallie, and casting Dunst in the role of the novel's mixed race teacher. Despite Coppola insisting she did not wish to give race short shrift as it would require more focus, the blatant attempt to make it easier to side with the women entirely by removing their roles as slavers seems misguided; the exorcising of people of colour altogether does not make it as noble a feminist piece as it could have been as there is an absence of a particular voice here - an important one too in the time of the Civil War.
Ultimately, the film is a highly effective piece of cinema as Coppola evokes the repression of female sexuality dominant in her earliest work The Virgin Suicides, but with an added dose of violence, and really utilising the excellent cast for all its worth. The film's shortcoming, however, is certainly its sanitised version of the South in the Civil War - an issue Hollywood still seems to have a problem with. Coppola has certainly made a less misogynistic film than Siegel, but one that had the potential to be even more progressive.